The dispute over genetically modified (GM) corn between the United States and Mexico has been ongoing for over two decades. At the heart of the issue is Mexico’s ban on growing GM corn commercially and concern over GM corn imports from the US contaminating native corn varieties in Mexico.
What led to the dispute over GM corn between the US and Mexico?
Here is a brief overview of what led to the GM corn dispute between the two countries:
- The adoption of GM corn in the US – In the 1990s, GM corn began to be commercially grown in the US. By the early 2000s, about 25-30% of corn grown in the US was GM.
- GM corn exports to Mexico – As a major importer of US corn, Mexico began importing significant quantities of GM corn from the US in the late 1990s.
- Mexico’s ban on GM corn – Citing concerns over native corn varieties, Mexico instituted a ban on growing GM corn commercially in 1998. However, it continued importing GM corn for consumption.
- Gene flow concerns – Mexico worried that imported GM corn could cross-pollinate with native varieties, leading to genetic contamination. This could risk the diversity of native corn varieties.
- Anti-GM activism – Activist groups in Mexico strongly opposed GM crops and pressured the government to take action to protect native corn varieties.
- Trade disputes – Friction over GM corn imports led to trade disputes between the US and Mexico in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
These factors created ongoing tensions between the two countries over how to handle GM corn trade and prevent gene flow from imported corn to native varieties.
What are Mexico’s main concerns regarding GM corn imports?
Mexico has two main concerns regarding the import of GM corn from the US:
- Contamination of native varieties – Mexico fears imported GM corn could cross-pollinate with local native varieties, resulting in genetic contamination. This could cause native varieties to disappear and lose biodiversity.
- Impact on small farmers – GM corn could spread into fields of small farmers growing native corn varieties. This could put their livelihoods at risk if native varieties are contaminated.
Underpinning these concerns is the fact that Mexico is considered the center of origin and diversification for corn. It has dozens of native corn varieties specially adapted to different regions and uses. GM contamination could forever change this genetic heritage.
What types of GM corn does Mexico import from the US?
The main GM corn traits that Mexico has imported over the years from the US include:
- Insect resistance – Corn engineered to produce Bt proteins that make it resistant to pests like the European corn borer.
- Herbicide tolerance – Corn engineered to be tolerant to herbicides like glyphosate (Roundup Ready corn). This enables farmers to use broad-spectrum herbicides for weed control.
- Stacked traits – Corn with both herbicide tolerance and insect resistance traits stacked together through cross-breeding.
Over 90% of corn grown in the US has at least one GM trait. The most common is a combination (“stack”) of insect resistance and glyphosate herbicide tolerance.
How much GM corn does Mexico import annually from the US?
Mexico imports between 8-12 million tonnes of corn from the US each year. This makes up about 30-40% of Mexico’s annual corn consumption. Estimates indicate that between 60-80% of US corn exports to Mexico are genetically modified varieties.
So in absolute terms, Mexico may import between 5-10 million tonnes of GM corn from the US every year. This makes Mexico one of the largest importers of GM corn in the world.
What is Mexico’s policy regarding GM corn? What led to its adoption?
Mexico’s policy on GM corn can be summarized as follows:
- 1998 – Mexico imposed a ban on growing GM corn commercially to protect native varieties.
- But the government continued to allow GM corn imports for consumption from the US.
- 2005 – A law was passed to establish the federal government’s power to regulate GM crops.
- 2008 – Regulations prohibited the presence of GM corn in areas with native varieties under a “GM-free zones” policy.
- But again, imports were not banned and a tolerance was established for low-level presence of GM material in corn shipments.
This policy arose from Mexico’s biosafety commission (CIBIOGEM) assessments about gene flow risks from GM varieties. The ban on cultivation aimed to prevent contamination at the source. But imports continued since corn is a food staple in Mexico.
Have there been cases of contamination of native corn varieties in Mexico by GM corn? What happened?
There have been a few reported instances of GM contamination of native corn varieties in Mexico:
- 2001 – Researchers found evidence of GM constructs in native corn varieties in the southern state of Oaxaca.
- 2002 – Follow up studies confirmed contamination likely occurred through gene flow from imported GM varieties.
- 2004 – Mexico’s biosafety commission found GM contamination in 10-15% of corn samples tested from Oaxaca.
- 2009 – GM DNA was found in native varieties grown directly for consumption in remote mountains regions.
The detected contamination levels were low in most cases. But these instances confirmed that gene flow was happening between imported GM corn and native varieties grown in nearby fields.
What has been Mexico’s response to the cases of contamination?
In response to the contamination cases, Mexico took the following measures:
- Launched expanded monitoring and testing programs for GM contamination.
- Established buffer zones around native corn fields in regions suitable for biodiversity conservation.
- Distributed handbooks to farmers on how to avoid contamination by imported corn.
- Tried to improve storage and processing facilities for native corn varieties.
- Sought compensation from companies and countries (e.g. US) for contamination effects.
However, Mexico did not ban GM corn imports or strengthen restrictions significantly. It maintained that low levels of GM presence were acceptable.
What arguments and positions has Mexico raised in trade disputes over GM corn with the US?
In trade disputes at the WTO and through NAFTA mechanisms, Mexico has raised the following arguments:
- The US should conduct assessments on gene flow risks from its GM corn exports.
- GM corn shipments should be clearly labelled and segregated to prevent uncontrolled spread.
- Mexico has a right under international agreements to take action to protect plant health and native biodiversity.
- Threshholds should be established for low-level presence of unapproved GMOs in corn shipments.
- The Mexican government should receive compensation for negative impacts of GM contamination on small farmers.
However, Mexico has not called for an outright ban on GM corn imports from the US. It has sought to put frameworks in place to manage the GM contamination issue.
What arguments and positions has the US raised in response in the trade disputes?
The US has responded to Mexico’s arguments by asserting the following positions in the trade disputes:
- There is no conclusive evidence that GM corn threatens Mexican native corn varieties or human health.
- Import approvals and labelling for GM corn are burdensome and unwarranted.
- Mexico’s GM cultivation ban is not grounded in solid science and disrupts corn trade.
- Threshholds for low-level GM presence should be practical and guided by scientific risk assessments.
- Mexico’s concerns can be addressed through bilateral coordination rather than trade restrictions.
The US has generally maintained that Mexico’s regulations on GM corn lack scientific justification and are unsupported by international guidelines. It has sought to limit restrictions on GM corn trade.
What experts, groups and institutions are involved in the dispute? What are their positions?
Some of the key stakeholders involved in the Mexico-US GM corn dispute include:
- Mexican farmer and environmental groups – Strongly oppose GM corn due to contamination risks and support restrictions on imports and cultivation.
- Industry and biotech companies – Support GM technology and want Mexico to allow commercial GM corn planting and loosen import restrictions.
- The Mexican government – Seeks to balance biosafety concerns with industry demands and tries to find middle ground on managing GM corn imports.
- US trade representatives and agribusiness – Argue Mexico’s stance lacks scientific basis and unfairly harms US corn exports and farmers.
- Scientific organizations – Generally recognize gene flow risks from GM corn but disagree on the scale of impact and appropriate policies.
There is a diversity of perspectives between stakeholders, making it difficult to reach consensus on resolutions to the dispute.
Have any trade disputes reached resolution? What was the outcome?
Some key outcomes of trade disputes over Mexico’s GM corn policy include:
- 2009 – WTO panel upheld Mexico’s right to restrict GM corn imports but said rules must be consistent and scientific.
- 2012 – Mexico’s ban on planting GM corn commercially was maintained despite US objections under NAFTA.
- 2013 – Mexico agreed to permit GM corn trials and eventually commercialize biotech crops.
- 2020 – Updated USMCA trade agreement created standards for agricultural biotechnology and gene editing.
Thus trade disputes have focused Mexico and the US on creating frameworks to improve GM crop coexistence. But Mexico retains restrictions while slowly opening up to GM corn technology. Significant disagreements remain between the two countries.
What is the current state of the GM corn dispute between the US and Mexico?
The GM corn conflict remains unresolved and simmering as of 2023. Key aspects of where things currently stand are:
- Mexico’s ban on commercial GM corn planting is still in place.
- But field trials and eventual cultivation of some GM varieties is being allowed.
- Mexico continues to import large quantities of US GM corn with no outright bans in effect.
- Low levels of unapproved GM content in corn shipments are permitted.
- Monitoring GM contamination and protecting native varieties remains a policy priority for Mexico.
- The US continues to advocate for less restrictions on GM corn trade and planting.
While tensions around GM corn have eased since the 2000s, the dispute remains fundamentally unsettled between the two countries.
What are possible solutions and ways forward for the two countries on this issue?
Some potential paths to resolving the dispute over GM corn include:
- The US providing greater transparency and labelling for GM corn exports to Mexico.
- Joint scientific research on risks and impacts by Mexican and US institutions.
- Mexico establishing efficient protocols for permitting GM crop trials and commercialization.
- Developing mutually recognized standards for low-level presence of GM material in corn shipments.
- Creating a compensation mechanism to support Mexican farmers impacted by GM contamination.
- Forming a bilateral working group to cooperatively monitor gene flow and implement containment measures.
Moving forward, the dispute could be managed through greater information sharing and scientific cooperation between the two countries along with fair procedures for trade in GM crops.
The conflict over GM corn has persisted between the US and Mexico owing to different agricultural priorities and inadequate policy coordination. While Mexico sought to protect native corn diversity from risks of uncontrolled GM spread, the US promoted free trade in biotech products with fewer restrictions. With growing interdependence and GM technology unlikely to be phased out, pragmatic, science-based policies are now needed to enable coexistence of GM and traditional corn systems in North America.